In other words

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Montreal (23 June 2008) - Will there ever be another opening night like the one by Leonard Cohen on Monday in Montreal?

What a triumph it was for this reed of a man with the granite voice whose art has so touched the world. How elegant he was, how dapper, dignified, generous and kind.

For three and a half hours Cohen held a capacity crowd in his hand at Place des Arts, and the crowd, in turn, held him, neither quite willing to let the evening go when it finally, wistfully, came to a close.

It was Cohen’s first Montreal concert in 15 years and, at age 73, it may be the last occasion this icon of Quebec and Canada opens in the city that gave him birth. I hope it’s not, but the thought was there as he stood on the broad Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier stage, immaculate in a dark gray suit and jaunty fedora, and offered up his heart and voice.

What country would not kill to call Leonard Cohen its own?

I never tire of seeing him, or hearing his voice, or reading his words. Whenever his face appears on television, or looms from a newspaper page or magazine, I stop to watch, to read, to listen. He is a artist who knows that the power of words is proportionate to the economy and precision in which they are used, and that humour and humility heighten the impact.

“I was born like this. I had no choice,” he intoned in the Tower of Song. “I was born with the gift of a golden voice.” As always, the line provoked applause and appreciative laughter. Yet Cohen’s voice is golden, the perfect showcase for his effortless lyrics.

More perfect union

I marvel at the marriage of his words and voice. Cohen will spend weeks, months, years sometimes, crafting the perfect line, waiting for the words to arrange themselves in the best possible order, to reduce and settle into an ever more perfect union upon the page.

The right words in the right order are prose. Perfect words in the perfect order are poetry, and few push poetry farther than Leonard Cohen at his best.

Monday night was as perfect a moment, on as perfect a stage, as Cohen or any of his admirers could ask - there on Ste. Catherine Street, at the foot of Mount Royal, the illuminated cross shining somewhere on the mountain, the city and its lights sloping down to Old Montreal, where Our Lady of the Harbour, arms raised above the sailors’ chapel, Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours, keeps eternal watch over the broad St. Lawrence.

Yes, he sang Suzanne, the song that made the statue as famous as the woman for whom it was penned, a song that still washes in a timeless tide through the ears of millions around the world.

They came specifically to hear Suzanne, and all the other songs too that Cohen sang with such gusto and joie de vivre - Bird on a Wire, Dance me to the End of Love, So Long Marianne, Boogie Street, The Future, Democracy, First We Take Manhattan, Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye, Ain’t No Cure for Love, Famous Blue Raincoat, My Secret Life, Light as the Breeze, Sisters of Mercy, I’m Your Man, Closing Time and Hallelujah.

Coming to the U.S.A.

Democracy had a special ring on this occasion - against the backdrop of hope and change enveloping America to the south in the long electoral season of 2008. Democracy is coming, he sang. “Its coming from the sorrow on the street / The holy places where the races meet / Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.”

By the end it was unclear who would allow the spell to be broken first, Cohen or the adoring audience. Fittingly, it seemed more or less a draw.

 There are three things that Cohen does better than anyone else – smile, bow, and wear a gray fedora - and the three merged perfectly as he paused again and again to acknowledge the waves of applause that engulfed him. He beamed, he bowed, and held the fedora high in the flood lights.

He also paused repeatedly to acknowledge the role of his six-piece band and three exquisite back-up singers: Roscoe Beck (bass and background vocals), Neil Larsen (keyboard, accordion and brass instruments), Bob Metzger (guitar, steel guitar and vocal), Javier Mass (”Bandurria, laud, archilaud and 12-string guitar”), Rafael Gayol (drums and percussion), Dino Soldo (keyboard, saxaphone, wind instruments and vocal), Sharon Robinson (vocals) and The Webb Sisters, Charley and Hattie (vocals).

The band, and the singers, were impressive throughout, complementing everything Cohen did. But the most riveting moment of the night occurred with no accompaniment at all, when Cohen stood alone in the spotlight and recited A Thousand Kisses Deep, the audience hanging on every resonant word.

The ponies run, the girls are young,
The odds are there to beat.
You win a while, and then it’s done –
Your little winning streak.
And summoned now to deal
With your invincible defeat,
You live your life as if it’s real,
A Thousand Kisses Deep.

‘How the light gets in’

Driving home across the flatlands of West Quebec and into Eastern Ontario, beneath an orange half-moon that crept over the horizon and inched upward in the sky, I slid another CD into the dash, and listened once more to words that lingered from the evening. One of the most haunting compositions was Anthem, with its clarion call to live life now, not waiting for a more perfect moment to come.

Ring the bells that still can ring,
forget your perfect offering,
there is a crack,
there is a crack in everything,
that’s how the light gets in.”

© 2008/David Blaikie